Bronco Beat

Washington State throws it more than anyone. But runners may be the key vs. Boise State

Everyone knows No. 20 Washington State is going to throw the ball, and do it a lot. The Cougars did it 71 times last year against Boise State.

Senior quarterback Luke Falk is back again to torment opposing defenses, which he did in Washington State’s 31-0 win last weekend, completing his first 20 passes against Montana State.

“I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before,” Boise State sophomore linebacker Tyson Maeva said.

Falk completed 70 percent of his 633 pass attempts last season, throwing for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns, with 11 interceptions. His 11,204 career yards are nearly 2,000 more than any active passer in the country, from Division III on up.

“He’s got the arm strength, he’s got all the tools ... one of the top in the country,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “Has command of the offense, moves the ball down the field, he’s efficient.”

But the Cougars have found a way to make the offense just a little more balanced, making them tougher to defend.

The Washington State running backs rushed for 157 yards against the Bobcats and added 197 receiving yards. Senior Jamal Morrow had 10 carries for 89 yards, while sophomore James Williams set a school record for a running back with 13 receptions for 163 yards and two touchdowns.

“That offense is ridiculous, how much they pass, but they’ve got a strong run game to back them up,” Maeva said.

In 2016, the Cougars averaged 120 rushing yards per game — 114th in the Football Bowl Subdivision — but that was light years ahead of where they have been. It was their best average since 2006, six years before coach Mike Leach’s pass-heavy offense even arrived.

“I don’t know if it’s evolved or not,” Leach said. “You feature the players you have. Back in the Big 12, our running backs would lead the conference or in the top two or three as far as production. ... it really hasn’t changed a lot.”

But last year’s group was different and gave the Air Raid offense just enough of a new look. It was the first time in Leach’s 15 seasons as a coach at Texas Tech and Washington State in which his running backs combined for 1,000 yards receiving and rushing.

If there’s any sign of how far the offense has come in just a few years, it’s that the Cougars hope to — gasp — establish the run against Boise State on Saturday. In the teams’ meeting last year, Washington State had 40 rushing yards on 20 attempts.

“We’re just looking forward to running the ball. We didn’t run the ball for crap that game,” Washington State offensive tackle Cole Madison told The Seattle Times. “We’ve just gotta pound it down and make something happen.”

Washington State lists four players as co-starters at running back in Morrow, Williams, senior Gerard Wicks and junior Keith Harrington. The Cougars threw more than anyone else last season, which spreads out a defense and can provide the backs with larger holes or more room to move on check-down passes.

And don’t forget that up front, every starting lineman is at least 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds.

“You combine all that stuff, it makes them balanced, and obviously it presents some challenges,” BSU defensive coordinator Andy Avalos said.

Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn

Washington State at a glance

Nickname: Cougars

Location: Pullman, Wash.

Head coach: Mike Leach (30-34, sixth year; 114-77, 16th year overall)

This year: 1-0 overall; beat Montana State 31-0 on Saturday

TEAM RUNDOWN

The Cougars won eight straight games last season after losing at Boise State, but dropped their last three. Coming off a win over Montana State (Leach’s first win in a season opener at Washington State), senior quarterback Luke Falk has some momentum. He was 33-of-39 for 311 yards and three touchdowns in the opener. As usual, he will spread it around. Ten players caught passes, with three running backs hauling in 18 passes for 197 yards.

Built for speed, the defense was stout up front, posting its first shutout since 2013 against the run-heavy Bobcats. Junior defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa had 2.5 tackles for loss Saturday after posting 13.5 in 2016. The defense forced 23 turnovers last season, aided by an aggressive style. Strong passing teams had huge days most weeks against the Cougars in 2016, and Boise State will present far more of a challenge in that aspect than Montana State.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Cody O’Connell, OG: The behemoth senior stands at 6-foot-9, 368 pounds and was a unanimous All-America selection last season. Pro Football Focus rated him as the No. 1 pass blocker among Power Five guards; he surrendered just one sack on 591 pass-blocking snaps last season. He likely would have been an NFL Draft pick had he not returned to school.

“He moves real well for that size,” Leach said. “He’s weirdly flexible.”

Boise State at No. 20 Washington State

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Martin Stadium (32,952, FieldTurf)

TV: ESPN (Mark Jones, Rod Gilmore, Quint Kessenich)

Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)

Records: BSU 1-0 (beat Troy 24-13); Washington State 1-0 (beat Montana State 31-0)

Series: Washington State leads 4-1 (Boise State won 31-28 last year in Boise)

Vegas line: Washington State by 10

Kickoff weather: Low 70s, partly cloudy

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